NASHVILLE SKYLINE: That Gurgling Sound? CD Sales Down the Drain

What to Do? Listen for Good Music, Like Jude Johnstone's Stuff

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Well, it looks like the Grim Reaper has finally come for the CD. So far this year, the bottom has absolutely fallen out of the CD market. When week after week in January, weekly sales of 60,000 units translate to a No. 1 ranking on Nielsen SoundScan’s 200 all-genre album chart, then sales are really off. That No. 1 slot is more accustomed to seeing albums with sales in the 300K to 700K weekly range. In a country of 300 million people, 60K is an astoundingly low figure.

Even country music, which still is healthier than other genres, is down significantly so far this year in sales. I have always thought that country would be the last genre to falter, because of its preponderance of sales in Wal-Mart and other big box stores and it being predominantly played on CD players in pickups, SUVs and homes. But it looks like the end is becoming a real possibility.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s obvious that downloads have finally become serious competition to retail CD sales. There’s also the matter of no true major album releases thus far this year. The supposed big January album, the Dreamgirls soundtrack, couldn’t get much above 60,000 or so, even though that was enough to top the Billboard 200 chart. As for country, the biggest-selling CD, Rascal Flatts’ Me and My Gang, sold 33,000 copies last week, less than half of what it was doing in December. But one new Tim McGraw album could turn things around for country — and that release is coming on March 27. Finally, though, there’s the matter of what’s being recorded and released. By and large, it’s a bunch of junk. Look at the 200 list. Boxes of rocks everywhere you look.

There is good music being released, apart from the major artists. But it’s getting to be harder and harder to find it and hear about it in all the clutter of media and Web sites and everything else.

Me, I’ve spent this week listening to and enjoying two CDs I missed the first time around. One was released in 2002, the other in 2005. They’re both by the same artist. How did I hear about them? A friend put the CDs in my hands and told me I would probably like them. He was dead-on right.

The artist is Jude Johnstone, a songwriter who finally started recording her own stuff. I knew many of the songs she had written, such as Johnny Cash’s recording of “Unchained,” Trisha Yearwood’s cut of “The Woman Before Me,” Stevie Nicks’ “Cry Wolf,” Bette Midler’s “The Girl Is on to You” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Wounded Heart.” But I knew nothing about Johnstone herself.

Turns out she grew up in Maine, picking blueberries in an idyllic childhood and couldn’t wait to run off to L.A. to be a songwriter. She hit town just behind the disco movement, which sort of wiped out sensitive songwriters for a while. But she has endured and has some great songs to show for it.

BoJak Records, her recording label, is a Pat Sajak venture. Good for Pat, who has spent much time in Nashville and enjoys a good song. Her 2002 CD is Coming of Age and the 2005 release is On a Good Day.

What does Johnstone write like and sound like? I’m always uncomfortable about labeling people, but if pressed, I would say that she writes near Rosanne Cash and sings near Carole King and Bonnie Raitt. Not bad areas to be in. She writes psychological thrillers and sings intimate secrets. And her voice is very wise and knowing.

I guess you could say this is mature music, for the baby boomers looking at the gray in the mirror and reflecting on paths taken and roads not driven down. But the sentiments are universal and not at all generation-specific. The music is heavily atmospheric. Some of the songs are almost brutally honest. “In This House” eviscerates a marriage where the husband and wife merely co-exist: “In this house/It’s always night/The morning comes/But not the light.” And then the emotional indictments follow. And “Don’t let me grow old and gray,” she sings in “Old and Gray.”

Perhaps her cheeriest song, “On a Good Day,” tells a story familiar to us all: “On a good day/In the morning light/All the wreckage/Is out of sight/And I know it’s gonna be alright/And I’ll get some sleep tonight.”

It doesn’t hurt that she has backing vocals by the likes of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell and Julie Miller.

I guess we’re going to get down eventually to niche marketing, probably entirely online. Except for the throwbacks who will haunt stores and Web sites for CDs and even ancient vinyl LPs. But there will still be durable writers and singers, like Johnstone, who will endure.